Thursday, May 14, 2015

What is Story?

Lately I've become obsessed with a question. It is, more or less, this: What is story?

I know some stuff about story. My stories have been published in magazines and anthologies, I have a YA fantasy book that many readers like, and my new fantasy novel is coming out next spring from Baen Books. I know a good story when I've read it. Or written it.

But what is it, at essence? There's something there that I can almost taste, but can't quite get my hands around. Something at the fundament of the concept of story, that crosses all forms, from flash to epic, from song to movie, from Saturday morning cartoons to Shakespeare's sonnets.

What is story? What would I see if I held its beating heart in my hand?

I re-read my writing books, sucking marrow from the words of those who ought to know. I put the question to the internet. I ask everyone who will stand still long enough.

Story, a number of writerly friends inform me, is when a character, with a challenge, after struggling and failing, finally solves (or fails to solve) said challenge. Stuff happens, see. People change. Situations get resolved. Beginning, middle, end. Tension. Resolution. Resonance.

Well, yes. That's plot structure - or some kinds of plot structures, anyway. But I could write a story that fits all that just fine and still brings you to yawns. (Yes, I'm that good.) If it's boring, it's not a story for you. So what makes a story come alive?

It's about character, someone tells me. Intriguing characters who draw you into a greater meaning.

Yes, again. None of this is untrue, but in a sense these are only tools. What about Story with a capital "S"? I'm still hunting for the essence of the beast itself. I'll know it when I hold it in my hand, gooey and throbbing.

"Story..." says Ursula K. Le Guin, in one of her essays, "is one of the basic tools invented by the mind of man, for the purpose of gaining understanding. There have been great societies that did not use the wheel, but there have been no societies that did not tell stories."

That all societies use story seems an important clue to my hunt. That it's a tool to understanding -- another clue. I can sense the answer out there.

In another article she says:

"The very quality of story is to hold, to fascinate."

I can feel myself inching closer.

Casting about for answers on the net, this quote catches my eye:

"What is a story? A structured way of looking at reality. A way that works for us because it matches the way our brains work. Reality, in its raw, unfiltered, and ugly state, is chaotic. But we are not very good at dealing with chaos. Hence, we impose structures on our experiences of reality in order to make sense of it. We impose stories."

Making sense of reality. I hear a distant bell. I'm closer.

Some friends question the intensity of my obsession. "Why do you need to know how the sausage is made? Isn't it enough that you can make it?"

It sure isn't. I need to understand not just sausage, but Sausage.

Finding another analogy wouldn't hurt, either.

Ever played with a kitten and a string? Even better -- tie a ball of crinkly paper to the end. You tug and the kitten follows, utterly fascinated. Maybe it pounces, making adorable mock-killing motions. After a while, kitten might tire just a bit, and sit back on its haunches, and look around to see if there's another crinkly ball lurking in the neighborhood.

Want kitten's rapt attention back? Draw the crinkly ball behind a corner, just out of sight. Somewhere not visible but clearly in reach. Kitten is unable to resist following. Perhaps it's genetic wiring for the mouse that has just slipped into a shallow hole. Kitten will follow. Kitten has no choice.

As I see it, this is Story. Kitten Story.

What is the human equivalent? When we are deeply intrigued by a tale, what makes us so? When we are moved to tears, what has done this? How does a story become irresistible? What makes us care so much, makes us so happy when it's completed well?

I know the answer varies from person to person, from culture to culture, and across genres. But I believe there's something at the heart of all stories that draws our attention relentlessly forward, that leads our ravenously curious minds around. As if we were kittens chasing crinkly paper balls. That thing we are genetically unable to resist.

Another writer friend says this: "Stories are ways to live without living. To experience significant things without all the troubles of actually being there. Living takes time and resources; If you can live a dozen years around a campfire in one night, there's value there. Useful experience on the cheap."

Stories can teach us how to live, so we don't have to try to live all those lives ourselves.

I can smell it now, the answer. It's pungent. I'm so close.

I score a chance to talk about plot with an award-winning story author, and at one point in the conversation he's on about characters who face challenges that keep getting worse, about how they slam up against a dilemma with obvious resolutions, but the ideal story solves the dilemma in a non-obvious way, and then...

...and then...

The bell rings. I have it. My answer.

I'm bouncing up and down, saying "that's it! that's it!" and my friend is gently trying to tell me that while it might be a profound insight for me, it's not necessarily going to seem like a big deal to everyone else. But I don't care -- I have my answer -- I have the beating heart of Story, right in my hand.

It's not complicated. In fact, it's deliciously simple.

Oh, you want it, too? Here it is.

Our minds are built for making sense out of the world, and making sense is, at its core, about solving puzzles. So when someone starts solving puzzles and unwinding mysteries in front of us, we notice fast. If the puzzle or mystery happens to be similar to something we've tried to solve ourselves, successfully or not, we become intrigued. Stories that work for us intrigue us because they solve mysteries we care about.

Now, I use the words "puzzle" and "mystery" loosely here. A social challenge. How power is wielded. Dealing with death. Exploring new lands. Surviving hardship. Finding love. Making community. Having children. Living in peace. The nature of consciousness. What we want. What we fear. All this and more.

Story is puzzle solving, done well.

I start to see how the canonical rules of storytelling fall naturally out of this principle. Why is it so important we identify with the character? Because if the character isn't enough like us, we can't follow the pattern to the solution. Why the escalating challenges? To show that the character is dealing with a non-trivial problem, one worth solving. Why must the character transform? Because they can't solve the problem at the story's start and at the conclusion they can, so the problem changed, the character changed, or it's a lousy story. To see how we might follow in their path, the change must be evident. Why an unexpected solution? Because we already know the expected and obvious ones. I could go on.

As humans, we are keenly aware when anyone tells us they've untangled a knot. It intrigues us at a very deep level. When Story draws us forward irresistibly, it is offering to solve a mystery for us.

When it delivers, it gives us great satisfaction, because that's how we and our clever minds are put together.

So I've solved my mystery. The crinkly ball is mine.

Friday, May 1, 2015

May Day, Map Day

Return the map! It will bring you great danger.

The map is not the story, but if your characters leave the house and wander around at all, you'll need a map. You can have it before you begin, or you can draw it as you go, but you need a sense of location or you'll get lost, and no one likes it when the author -- the tour guide, after all -- can't find their way around.

My maps are minimal. High Fantasy has a history of being extravagant with unnecessary details, and I resist that -- I tend to follow the maxim "Cut out all the parts that aren't interesting" (Ray Vukcevich, to Jay Lake, as related here)

So, yes, I have my maps. Right by my computer so I can see where the action is happening and where my people are going. Check that it all makes sense.

Still, somehow, it didn't occur to me that the reader might also like to know where the action was happening and where the characters were going. So I was surprised when my editor said, "we'll need your map, of course."

Need my map? But... but... I'm not a map person. I just have these sketches...

No problem, my editor says, we have a guy for that.

I do a little research on their guy and I'm suitably impressed; he's discussed with reverence and awe. His job is to take my map and make it look good. I provide the raw materials and he makes it sparkle and shine.

I slowly exhale. I don't have to worry about the map after all.

Well, wait -- I have to give him something, and it has to be correct. I take a closer look at the sketch I'm planning to send him, and I realize some of the details are, ahem, not quite right.

Oh, not the book -- the narrative itself is flawless, as to places and directions. Ahem. But primarily it's my map that needs fixing. Provinces where they should be. Villages and cities moved to the right -- if general -- location. Major rivers inserted. Show the Great Road. Things that if you're going to bother with a map at all, need to be present and correct enough to elucidate rather than befuddle.

Here we go into the warm part of the year. The well-lit part of the year. Good light by which to draw.

Map Day.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

The Seer: Signed, Sealed, Delivered

I've been waiting until today to tell you what happened two weeks ago. Before I do that, let's back up a bit.

Early last year Baen Books told me that, yes, they were interested in my novel, The Seer, but that they wanted changes. Big changes. In a long conversation, they outlined the revisions they wanted. Totally understand, they said, if you'd rather not.

Thing was, they were right. The editors had, essentially, called me out on all my short-cuts, weak characterizations, arcs that needed to go farther, an ending that needed more closure.

Yeah, I said: count me in. I'm in. All in.

Then I went to work. The revisions they wanted were huge -- plot-changing, character wrenching -- and in many cases they did not play nicely with each other. I realized that I needed to find new ways to tell a story that was fast becoming more complicated than anything I had laid hands on before. Bluntly, this story was going to require a better writer than I was to finish it. Somehow, I had to become that better writer.

I wish I could tell you it all blossomed in magic born of necessity, and there were some rare times when the words just flowed and it felt like some kind of magic, but most of the time it was me just reviewing plot-lines, checking maps, consulting my experts, and putting one finger in front of the other to write what too often felt like the clumsiest prose I'd ever fashioned.

I took out a lot of words. All the way through and in the final rewrites. My outtakes file is about half the size of the final manuscript, and that isn't short. (Though, I hasten to add, shorter than Game of Thrones. Ha!)

But most of the time what got me through the current scene or chapter was something akin to terror: I had signed a contract -- I had taken real money -- I had a deadline. Sure, I could quit, but then I'd have to flee the country and live in shame under an assumed name for the rest of my life.

There were moments where that seemed the better option.

I lined up some powerful allies. First readers. Friends. Experts. Advisers. My Muse. My Reader Advocate. (I'll explain later.) I warned them all that there would be times when I would loose faith in my ability, and that their job was to get me to the finish line. And they did. Wow, did they. More on that in another post.

As a writer I took a lot of risks with this book, with the story-line, characters, tensions, symbol choices, and so on -- things I hope my reader never notices consciously. I had no idea if the publisher would like what I'd done.

Sometimes I would lie there trying to sleep and think about all the risky things I'd done that they could object to, all the strange twists and turns I'd made, all the ways in which I'd incorporated the changes they wanted, but gone a fair bit beyond what might have been enough, all in order to tell the story that needed to be told.

In the last two months before the deadline, it came to me -- in my gut, not intellectually -- that I had to write the story the best I possibly could -- so that, if the publisher did not like it after all, I would know, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that it wasn't because I'd held back.

I didn't hold back.

Then, the last day of March -- two weeks ago -- I shipped it. That's what I wanted to tell you.

I was surprisingly calm about it. I had, after all, given it everything I had. If it wasn't good enough, well, so be it; I knew I hadn't taken any shortcuts.

Today my editor at Baen wrote me back. He said he'd finished the book. The fixes he wants are minor.

He called it wonderful. He called it excellent. He said I'd made all the changes he'd hoped for and more. He said he was proud to be publishing it.

Me, too. Very much so. The Seer is scheduled to hit ink in spring of 2016.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

The Everything of Life

I don't usually write about food (with "Chef's Surprise" as a notable exception) but this I had to share.

Low carbing? Gluten-free?

Bet you miss bagels, don't you.

It's the everything you really miss.

Whatever the reason you've decided baked goods just aren't worth the downside, I'm with you. But gods, I miss the everything.

You, too?

Sometimes these inspirations come from the sky. Me, I was walking by a bakery.

I have a solution. Not the perfect solution, but remember: the perfect is the enemy of the just-darned-good-enough. This is good enough and then some.

Just fry up some cheese. Add the everything mix. Brown slightly.

Pretty simple stuff, the everything: salt, poppy and sesame seeds, dried unions and/or garlic. Which you can make, buy on-line, or do what I did: walk into the bakery and ask for some. They might double-take, but if you have money, they'll hand it over.

Then fry up your favorite cheese, baked, with some everything on it. It's so good you will be tempted to send me fan mail.  (Please do.)

Because yum. Because everything.

It's everything you ever wanted

Saturday, September 27, 2014

How Facebook ate my blog and what I'm going to do about it

Facebook ate my blog
I don't blog here as much as I used to. I blame Facebook.

Why? It's easier to whip up a quick-and-dirty witty comment there than a reasoned and thoughtful post, here.  A lower bar to hit. I don't have to be as detailed, as nuanced. Full sentences not required. No one cares about my typos.

I appreciate responses. Far more likely to get them on the old FB feed.

Maybe even generate some back and forth. More like casual conversation between humans rather than a high-school essay. Gathering around the water hole.

Can you believe what the giraffes are on about?

The elephants are sure making noise tonight. Not much signal, though.

What, again? Will these idiot birds ever learn how things really work?

And then there's micro-reward of the LIKE. A touch of sweet dopamine. Food for the social animal, even the most anti-social among us.

I tell myself I'm not happy about all this. That my blog needs me. That I'm not going to take it any more. Going to do something about it.

So I write this post.

But if I want a response I'd better mention it there. Even if the theme of Facebook distracting humans from the more important things in life (like blogging?) is well past its sell-by date, someone there will agree with my sentiments.

Oh yes, they will.

Just watch my feed and see.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Things Jay Lake Told Me

We lost Jay Lake on June 1st. A lot of us, as it turns out. And yet we each lost our own personal Jay. Not quite the same critter as the next missing-Jay sufferer.

Me, I lost a friend who gave me some things no one else ever had, who held my hands and my confidences gently.

A lot has been said about him in the time since, but a few things haven't been said yet and I'd like to say them.

Jay believed in love, yes. But he also believed in touch and sex and adamantly and passionately believed that there was nothing wrong with either.

One day when he was visiting me, I turned on the tape recorder and got him going on various subjects, which wasn't hard to do.

Jay liked to talk. It was one of the many things he did well.

About people and how to treat them:

"Way too many people don't get listened to, or experience kindness, or touch. If you pay attention and you're nice about it and you gently offer touch, it's amazing how people respond."

About sex and death:

"We are put on this earth to do two things: fuck off and die.

"We fuck off to make more of ourselves, and we die to get out of their way. Since we only get to die once, we may as well work on the fucking-off as much as we can."

I laughed at this. He smiled and added, "I'm saying that funny, but I really do believe it."

And he did. Among the things I learned from Jay was that there are lots of ways to do sex.

Now that he's gone, I realize he also showed me there are a lot of ways to die. His way was to leave it all on the table.

Or to take it all off the table.

"Two of the greatest things in life are sex and food. Sensory input. I approach them similarly."

Sensuality. The stuff of life. He wanted it all.

The morning Jay died I went into a cafe and got myself a large cup of whipped cream. I drank it to his memory.

One day, many years ago -- pre-cancer -- I was complaining to Jay about something or another in my life.

You do your best, he told me.

No, that's not what he said at all. What he said was this:

"Here’s a twenty sided die, a jar of anchovies, an accordion, and a lug wrench. Good luck."

He meant that we go forward with the tools we have. Maybe not quite the tools we'd hoped for. Maybe not even sufficiently good tools. But they're the tools we've got. So use them, he meant.

The gifts Jay gave me - his love, his insights - are among my best tools.

Along with the twenty-sided die, of course, which I keep handy for those occasions when I'm without a jar of anchovies, an accordion, or a lug wrench.

"The entropy of the universe tends toward the maximum. Our role as human beings is to stand against that tendency."

And he did.

I'd like to think that through those of us who remain, missing him and loving him, he still does.

"Love while you can, live as you must."


Sunday, May 11, 2014

I'm a Grown-up Now

You know how when you go out to a restaurant, the server brings you a warm dish, puts it down in front of you, and says:

"Careful now -- that's hot"?

Let me ask you something. What's the first thing a kid does when you tell them not to touch something?


Also, I don't know what my server means by hot. Frankly, most people are wimps. So I touch it, just to find out how hot.

Typically not very. I like hot. Hot soups, hot drinks. Really hot. Most lattes are lukewarm by my standards. When I'm ordering from a Barista, I say, "make it dangerously hot. Put me at risk." Gets my point across.

So imagine my delight when, last week, a steaming, baked pesto-tomato-egg dish was put in front of me with no warning at all.

Just like that.

I grinned like a fool. I told the servers how delighted I was and thanked them profusely for treating me like an adult. I might have scared them a bit with my enthusiasm.

Oh, and the food was fabulous, too.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Seattle Driver Backs up While Texting

Yes, I recently watched a woman do this. Luckily not from behind her car.

Whether you walk, bike, or drive, you are at risk from those who take their attention off the road to see what's on their phone. For what? A cute cat picture? Something to pick up from the store?

Is it worth a life?

As my regular readers know, I have some strong opinions about using a cell phone while driving that go well beyond "don't."

At highway speeds, in the time it takes you to glance away from the road to look at your phone, even just to see who called, you're covering the length of a football field.

How many bodies is that?

Remember when cigarette smokers claimed they weren't hurting anyone but themselves so they should be able to smoke where and when they liked? Smoking laws arose because enough people decided that it simply wasn't true.

When the cellphone-while-driving body-count gets high enough, maybe we'll decide it isn't true that drivers can safely share that much attention with the road.

In the meantime, while the pile of bodies is still not large enough to get our culture's keen attention on the matter, how do we convince people not to text and drive?

One way is to insist that they do. In 2012, a Brussels Driving Centre required teens to text during a driving test. See what happened here. What would it take to include something like this on the practical part of the drivers' test?

Another way is to use the technology itself. It would be relatively easy to write an app that tracks cell phone motion patterns to determine if someone is driving or not, and then whether they are texting or talking, and report that to their auto-insurance company. Or the police. Anyone working on this? Can I help?

And lastly, social condemnation can move mountains. You know that look you give someone when they light up a cigarette near the picnic table at which you and your family are eating? Do that. Scowl. Shake your head. Wag your finger.

Just be careful and stay out of the direct line from their car to your body. Bad judgment while driving is not limited to cell phone use.

Monday, January 20, 2014

These Newfangled Devices

I remember wrist phones. They were all the rage in science fiction a few decades back, like flying cars and moon bases. Coming soon to a world near you.

I'm keen on user experience issues too. While reading Nielsen Norman Group's review of Samsung's Galaxy Gear smartwatch I have to laugh: "Better not stand next to a Gear user if you don't want a punch in the nose."

Meaning that moving the wrist phone to signal you want an app to launch -- otherwise known as "gesture interface" -- is still a touch buggy.

After I finish laughing, I consider. As a science fiction writer, it's my business to predict the future. Where will this lead? "Swipe ambiguity," as it's called, is going to be a problem for a while, but not forever. Designers are going to incorporate increasingly natural (and custom) gestures as inputs to our various new-fangled devices.

You can argue that our bodies are already our essential interface, but fingers on keyboards are pretty far from what might be considered natural input. What might be more innate?

Speech, of course. Voice recognition that works, reliably. Speak your desires and the computer does it.

What else?

How about you wave your right index finger in the air and chant "return the map!" and your navigation system launches? Or you start walking and your ped-metrics tracker starts up? Or you start humming and music plays, or you start dancing and your dance track launches? Right now your phone can't tell that you're dancing, but that day is coming. Body-reading computers are not far away.

But what about your mind?

Let's say you want to read your email. Take a moment and think about how that feels, right before you move your mouse to open your email. That feeling has a subtle but measurable physical component, and while our home computers and cell phones can't yet detect it, that day, too, is coming.

Power's in the wrist
That is, when you only want to read your email, before you've explicitly indicated anything, your computer will know. Maybe even before you do.

Interesting times in our near futures, my friends.  Hang on to your hat.

Which will probably launch the weather app.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

A Colorful Gathering

There is a reason that you can't find any used bowling balls in Oregon, and I'm going to tell you what it is.

Under a secluded tree, somewhere in the remote countryside, sit four hundred and thirteen -- wait, no, make that four hundred and fifteen, because she just bought out the local thrift store -- gathered bowling balls. I watch as the artist places the new ones.

It's a very large, very colorful gathering. What, I ask, are they doing here?

"Aging!" she tells me, delightedly.

Except for the ones that are used for Wilderness Bowling, she adds. That's a new sport you've never heard of that, no, I'm not making up. I wish I was.

These balls have to prove they have what it takes before she applies them to the task she envisions. Because, perhaps like many of the rest of us, some will crack under the strain of this wilderness experience. She has to be sure she knows what each one is made of.

And some do crack. She knows exactly what those ones are made of. Rubber and some very hard materials. The cracked ones look like large Easter malted milk balls someone has broken open.

The survivors have to stay intact for a good year -- or two, or three -- as long as it takes for her to collect the rest, and put them all together into -- well. That I can't tell you. Because I don't know.

This I can tell you: she's still looking. Because, she tells me, to compete her vision she still needs, oh, at least another four hundred.

The mind boggles. This one does, anyway.

So if you happen to have extra bowling balls lying around, let me know and I'll put you in touch with the artist. Then you can be a patron of the wilderness arts. Or a contributer to a new sport.

And if you, too, have been searching for used bowling balls and can't find them, at least you have that mystery solved.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Top 10 things you should know about Seattle's 2013 NW Chocolate Festival

You've heard about the NorthWest Chocolate Festival, September 20-22, right? If you like chocolate, you should plan to be there. Go put it on your calendar. Yes, now. I'll wait.

The festival has been expanding impressively these last few years, and is now held at Seattle's Washington State Convention Center. A little planning goes a long way.

Here are my top ten tips for getting the most out of the NW Chocolate Festival:

1. Plan to be there. If you're anywhere near Seattle, do come. It's so worth it. The single day pass price of $30 (advance price) is both a bargain and a steal given what you get: samples of some of the finest chocolate in the world, multiple educational tracks, demonstrations, and performances. And the VIP pass is a great way to make it an exceptional weekend. My advice? Buy your tickets in advance. Either way, keep the weekend open. If like most Seattleites you prefer to keep your options open until the very last minute, that's fine; the at-the-door price will still be a bargain.

2. Expect crowds. Serious crowds. Especially if you go on Saturday. Sunday tends to be less packed. I like people but last year I got overwhelmed by the sheer number of humans around me. Toward the end of Sunday (festival is over at 5pm), everything started to clear out. My advice: if you can't wrap your head around sharing space with thousands of other chocolate lovers and their kids, go early or go late. Chocolate knows no off-hours but if you don't like crowds Saturday morning or Sunday afternoon are your best bets.

3. Getting there is half the battle. Street parking will not be any fun. If you drive, save yourself time and hassle and park in the garage WSCC for about $15 for 6 hours -- cheap if you carpool with your friends, who you know want to go too. Better yet, take a bus, bike, Car2go, or a taxi. Directions and parking info here.

4. Pack healthy snacks. You'll have the chance to sample enough chocolate to make yourself truly sick. Before you know it you'll be craving something healthy like carrot sticks, nuts, or cheese sticks. Yes, there are places outside the festival to eat real food, but if you're like me, you won't want to leave. So bring healthy snacks to tide you over until you can tear yourself away.

5. Pace yourself, both in terms of how fast you walk and how much you sample. I'm not kidding about making yourself sick. And if you have children with you (or adults acting like children) pace them, too -- we can all use help in the face of temptation. Too much dark chocolate -- and most of this will be that, dark, at 70% or better -- can bring you right over the line of your personal theobromine limit. At my first festival weekend I simply didn't sleep and it wasn't the minimal amount of caffeine in chocolate. It was the theobromine.

6. Taste, don't gobble. Take a tiny taste of even the small samples they give you, savor it, try to understand it, and save the rest of the bite for later. That way you won't overwhelm your taste buds as quickly and you won't hit your limit as fast. While everyone comes to the festival for different reasons, if yours include finding out what the big deal about premium chocolate is, what makes it different from what you can buy at a grocery store, you'll want to pay close attention to what your tongue is telling you. Take your time.

7. Bring easy-to-carry tote bags for the chocolate you'll be buying to take home. Most vendors are going to be selling their wares at low festival prices so this is the time to stock up for both your personal chocolate needs and holiday presents. Yes, properly stored bar chocolate will easily last until the holidays and well beyond and you'll want to carry your purchases comfortably through the day. I always bring something I can sling over my shoulder, like a backpack. And I wear comfortable shoes.

8. Bring water. There will be water at the festival, but bring a small container to call your own so you can have it when you like rather than needing to search. I always bring a thermos of hot water -- mild green tea, if you must know -- because chocolate melts at body temperature and it helps me clear my palette between tastings. This year I'll probably bring an even bigger thermos, even though I'll need to carry it around, because I tend to go through it all.

9. Take a good look around. There will be so much to do and learn at the festival that you could be overwhelmed, but instead think of this as a self-directed course in chocolate based on your specific interests. Look at the schedule, see what appeals to you. Watch demos, listen to talks by industry insiders, attend performances that intrigue you, or just walk the floor admiring confections. If you're like me, you'll be impressed at how interesting chocolate is, how it affects humans world-wide, and what the implications of theobroma cacao are for the earth's sustainable ecosystem.

10. Say hello! Talk to the chocolate makers, the chocolatiers, and the educators. Find out what they think the most important issues of the day are with regards to chocolate. Some of the most deeply passionate and knowledgeable people in the world and industry will be there, and they care very much about what you, the end-consumer, knows and understands about chocolate. Don't be intimidated -- just say hello!

Got more questions about the festival? You might find the answers at the  festival facebook page, or this FAQ.

Or drop me a note!

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Dog lovers: Let's treat humans this well, k?

We all know the script: you see an adorable puppy and walk up to the cute critter then find yourself making cooing sounds and doing baby-speak. There's wagging and petting. It's a mini love-fest! It all makes perfect sense when you're there.

I'm not judging you. Really I'm not.

Then you say something like:

"Who's a good boy? You are! You like that, don't you. Gimmi a kiss!"

Doggie kisses! Awww!

So...I have another script I'd like you to try on. It's the one where you treat an adorable human the same way you treat the adorable puppy.

That's right: you walk up to a good-looking guy. You ruffle his hair. You make cooing sounds. You say something like:

"Who's a good boy? You are! You like that, don't you. Gimmi a kiss!"

Human kisses! Awww!

Why only dogs?  Don't some humans deserve lavish affection, too?

Give it a try. Change the world.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Not much here. Just some words.

And yet you keep reading.
Words don't come after the design is done. Words are the beginning, the core, the focus.

Start with words.


Saturday, July 6, 2013

The Lovely Mr. Gaiman

"Are you going to the party?"

The one you need a special invite for. I'm a Clarion West grad and a writer (really, I am) so, yeah, I'm going.

"Neil will be there," she says breathlessly. "He's got his people with him. I think he's got a bus."

His people. A bus. Well, well. You've certainly come up in the world since Sandman, Mr. Gaiman, since the days I was one of a small group of fans who gobbled up your early issues at the comic book store.

The party is large and loud. There are a lot of people. Writers, publishers, students, board members, old friends. You can tell where Gaiman is by looking for the impassable knot of humanity, all straining forward toward a central point of black-clad, soft-spoken handsome Englishman, hoping for a touch of magic.

"Have you met Neil yet?" someone asks me.  I'm confused about why it matters, but I answer.

"No need," I say. "I met him five years ago. Said everything I needed to say then."

"What did you say?"

"I told him I'd been a fan for 20 years. He said 'thank you very much.' There didn't seem much more to say."

I don't like the celebrity game. The one where you stand next to someone famous and try to pretend that you could become best-buds in a few seconds of small-talk. Or that perhaps by standing close some of their fame might rub off on you.

"Have you met Neil yet?" someone asks me.


"Where is he?"

"Over there."

I have things to do here. Talk to friends, publishers. Visit with His Potency, aka the excellent Jay Lake. Tell him "I love you" while I still can.

Lots of people, lots of noise. It doesn't take long before I'm ready to leave.

You got the foreshadowing reference, right? You know where this is going.

I'm putting my things together to leave when I notice a black-clad fellow surrrounded by only a few fans just a few feet away. I sigh, resolute, and walk over to pay my respects. After a moment he turns to me.


"I thought I'd come over and breathe the same air as you for a few moments," I say. "It seems to be the thing to do tonight."

He smiles. "And you are?" Ah, the lovely accent, the handsome face. He's a little older than when I saw him last, but aging with exceptional grace. I give him my name. He offers his hand. We shake.

"I'm Neil," he says.

"Yes," I say, "I know."

"I know that you know," he says, matching my tone, "but I have to say it, because it's the polite thing to do."

"And," I respond, "I know that you know that I know. Yes, you're very polite. Everyone is talking about how gracious you are. And how gorgeous."

"Oh, I couldn't say about the gorgeous part," he says modestly, "but I certainly do my very best to be gracious."

I assure him he has succeeded.

And I've had my minute. He turns away to be gracious (and gorgeous) to someone else, and then a woman tugs on my sleeve and asks me to introduce her to him. I laugh silently and introduce her to this man who won't remember me tomorrow but is, without question, gracious. And gorgeous.

I take a moment to inhale before I step away, to see if the air tastes any different here. Any more magic.

Oh, maybe just a touch.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Today We Remain

Death is awfully present in my life these days. A dear friend is dying. He's got stunningly good grace about it, but that's cold comfort. For him, for us. Frankly, the whole thing sucks. The dying, that is. His writing on the subject is impressive stuff.

It occurs to me, and this is probably obvious to you, that if you live long enough, everyone around you dies.  Beloved companion animals. Humans you can't live without. One day they're there, sensible and solid, saying things you couldn't make up if you tried, and then the next -- gone. Gone and done. Why is this so mystifying to me?

The math is clear: either you die, or you live on and those around you die. If you die, you (probably) don't have to face them dying, but otherwise, well, you do. Short of somehow managing to, say, drop an asteroid on yourself and everyone you know all at once (and if you have that kind of power let's talk--I promise to be very polite) either you go or they do.

Someone has to leave first. It can't happen any other way.

I don't know why this equation befuddles me. I feel like a child who can't understand simple single-digit arithmetic.

From what I can tell, most people don't face Death with much awareness. Whether because we're surprised, mentally altered, on meds, in pain, or in denial, most of us aren't very conscious of impending demise. Across the spectrum of human experience, we are primarily aware of others dying.

The point? The longer we live, the more it seems that Death follows us around, cutting down those near us. But that's only because Death hasn't yet put a hand on our shoulder. There's a wretched arithmetic to surviving those you love: someone has to remain.

Today, at least, I remain. As I watch those I love leave -- and prepare to leave -- I am reminded of how hard--how wrenching, how confusing--it is to be among those who remain.